David Ragan's cars will be missing something when they roll into Daytona International Speedway this month. In the grand scheme of things, a few strips of yellow tape on the back bumper might not seem like a big deal, but in the career of a stock car driver, leaving the "rookie stripe" behind is a huge step.
Ragan ran for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors in both the Busch Series and the Nextel Cup Series in 2007, winning the award in the Busch Series. Now, as he prepares to run the full schedule in both series again this year, he does so without the markings on his bumper that can be interpreted as a warning sign to the veterans in both circuits.
Sure, Ragan still has plenty to learn, but he is a rookie no longer. Now, it's time to build on what was accomplished with his Roush Fenway Racing teams. Ragan didn't reach all of his goals in what is now the Nationwide Series (formerly Busch) or the Sprint Cup Series (formerly Nextel), but that didn't mean he ended the year disappointed, either.
"This was one of our goals that we had [last] year was to finish in the top 10 in points and win Raybestos Rookie of the Year, and we finished fifth in points and won rookie of the year," Ragan said. "Two of the three we got to cross off. I'm a little disappointed that we didn't win a race [last] year.
"We were pretty close a few times, but it gives us something to look forward to [this] year. It's very cool to be the Raybestos Rookie of the Year. Jack Roush has got a niche for finding younger guys that are able to come into the sport and do this: Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Danny O'Quinn. We were all able to [win rookie honors in the Busch Series], so it's pretty cool to be able to follow those guys. Hopefully, we'll continue on and win some races and win some championships of other forms."
Roush Fenway Racing has long been able to identify and develop talent, as Edwards, O'Quinn and Ragan won the rookie title in consecutive seasons, while Biffle earned the award in 2001. Matt Kenseth claimed the Cup title in 2000, while Biffle, Kurt Busch, Edwards, Todd Kluever and Erik Darnell have taken rookie honors in the Craftsman Truck Series.
In the Busch Series, Ragan posted four top-5 and nine top-10 finishes to go along with two pole positions. In Cup, he recorded two top-5s and three top-10s while finishing 23rd in points.
It was definitely a learning experience, and he admits it's a tough question when asked about the biggest thing he learned in 2007.
"Probably just when to go hard and when not to. You know, if you've got a 10th-place car, finish 10th with it, where before I would try to over-drive and usually tear something up or put myself in a bad position and get wrecked," Ragan said. "Not every week you're going to have a winning car. There's a lot of great teams and great drivers in this top level, and just take what we get. If we've got a top-15 car, finish 15th with it, and that's one of the biggest things I've learned, just trying to take what I've got and make the best of it."
Ragan said he still needs to get the feel for qualifying at the Cup level, and he believes that will come with time. He spent Fridays this past season practicing mainly in race trim, trying to learn most of the tracks for the first time in a Cup car.
He ended the year with a 10th-place run at Homestead, a nice confidence booster heading into the ever-so-brief offseason.
"This Cup racing, just being fast is about half of it," Ragan said. "You've got to learn how to race them, and you've got to learn how to be fast on restarts for the long run, and I thought we were pretty good [at Homestead]. We can always be better. There are still some things to work on where I need to be better, but that's gonna be the difference between finishing 20th every week and 10th every week."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.